How-to avoid vocal cord problems like I had! Warning: Graphic content (meaning a photo of my vocal cords pre and post surgery, looks like something from outer space.)
(This was me in April 2017 right after having surgery to remove polyps from my vocal cords. A before and after photo of the polyps are down below so scroll slowly if you’re squeamish!)
In January of this year (2017) I went home to visit my family in Canada for a week and when I returned I started having problems singing at my gigs. I completely lost the ability to sing any falsetto notes (use my head voice). It would just come out as air struggling to push through. My vocals cords would not properly connect at the top to produce falsetto. I thought it was a cold I had but when I got over it I still couldn’t hit notes that were easy to hit a couple of weeks before. I resorted to cancelling some gigs and hiring singers to sing for me. It was a scary time not knowing why I couldn’t sing.
I ended up seeing a doctor and then an ENT (Ears, nose, and throat specialist) and they stuck a camera tube up my nostril and looked at my vocal cords in my throat. To my astonishment I had developed vocal polyps. (For more info about Vocal Polyps, click here). Basically they are a growth that inhibits the normal use of your vocal cords. Polyps are not as bad as vocal nodules at least, but they still required surgery to remove. I stopped singing before my surgery and had a period of about a month afterwards where I also wouldn’t be able to sing.
Graphic, here’s a pic of my vocal cords before and after surgery:
I know this picture is a little gross but I want you to understand that vocal issues are very real and can strike out of the blue, seriously affecting your life!
(The Top photo is before the surgery, notice the polyps on the upper right side which made using my falsetto impossible. The Bottom photo is right after having my polyps snipped off by doctors. Not a very fun ordeal and I’d hate to see anyone else go through this!)
I hope i didn’t traumatize any of you, lol…moving right along.
I’m not sure exactly why I developed the polyps. The doctor said it could be from singing with improper technique, or too often, or could have started while I was sick with a cold and trying to sing through it. Part of my recovery involved seeing a speech therapist. The speech therapist enlightened me about the importance of warm-up and cool-down exercises for before and after singing. She also suggested I take a couple vocal lessons to make sure I was using proper technique (which I recommend if you’re unsure about your current vocal technique). I’d like to share some things I’ve learned that will help you maintain proper vocal health and reduce the likelihood of you going through what I went through.
Things to stop doing immediately:
There are several things that contribute to poor vocal cord health and a poor vocal performance.
Whispering: Whispering is very bad for your vocal cords and should not be done habitually.
Throat Clearing: I’ve very guilty of this one as I clear my throat more than I should. Since my surgery I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce/eliminate unnecessary throat clearing. It basically makes your vocal cords smash together and can cause damage over time.
Dairy and Cold: Eating/Drinking dairy creates mucus in your throat which makes it difficult to sing. Cold air conditioning (for example in your car on the way to a gig) or drinking iced water will constrict your vocal folds. These aren’t detrimental to your vocal health like whispering and throat clearing but will negatively impact your performance if you do either in the hours leading up to a performance. (Come to think of it spicy foods can also reduce your singing abilities in the short term.)
Things to start doing:
Vocal warm-ups and cool-downs. This one is easy, loosen up your vocal cords before and after periods of exertion such as singing a gig. IT will make a big difference in your performance and will contribute to long-term vocal health.
Keep yourself properly hydrated: It’s important to drink enough water or tea (I love hot water with honey and lemon squeezed into it) on days when you will be singing. If you arrive at the gig dehydrated than it is already too late and you will be playing catch up. It’s important to remember that coffee and alcohol definitely won’t help your vocals as they dehydrate you.
Maintaining a basic level of fitness: This isn’t to say you need to be a gym rat to sing well as there are tons of examples where I can easily be proved wrong here. For me though, I’ve notice that I have more lung power during periods when I incorporate some form of regular exercise into my schedule. I don’t know if it’s “a thing” or if it’s mental, but it’s something to consider if you’re looking to take every step possible to improve your singing.
How-to Warm-up/Cool-off: (With Videos Demonstrations)
- First loosen up your body a bit. Rotate your shoulders in forward circles 10 times. Then reverse the direction and rotate another 10 times. Repeat this 2 or 3 times.
- The “Scooby Too”: It sounds ridiculous but stick your tongue out as far as you can. Its almost like saying “ahhh” for a doctor/dentist but without the noise, and then keep pushing your tongue out. This stretches and loosens the muscle. Repeat this at least 10 times. Stick your tongue out and reach downward, then repeat. (People next to you in traffic will get a giggle as you head to your gig).
- Pretend the tip of your tongue is a camera and you need to take a picture of the back of each tooth individually. This movement will also loosen up the tongue. (No video as this is pretty self explanatory).
- Hum a note and hold that note as you exhale. Repeat this a few times.
- Hum scales. You can use the major scale melody. DO-RE-MI-FA-SOOO…SO-FA-MI-RE-DOOO. Hum this melody then move up a semi tone. Keep doing this until you hear the break in your range then work your way back down until you bottom out (and can’t hum a lower tone).
- Repeat these scales but using a lip trill, or a brrrrrrrr sounds. If you have a hard time doing the brrrrr sound then use your thumb and pointer finger to apply a bit of pressure on both cheeks right above where your molars are.
- You can do the scales once more using words like GUG, or MUM. Gig-Gug-Gug-Gug-Gug-Gug-Gug-Gug-Gug with the DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-FA-MI-RE-DO melody.
- Raise your shoulders and breath in. This next step happens all at once. As you release the air let go of your shoulders so that gravity can pull them down naturally while making the brrr sound with your lips. While this is happening hum a high pitch note that slides to a low note as your shoulders are descending. I’ll post a vid of this later today!
Using these warm-up techniques before and after singing will greatly improve your abilities as well as help with your long term vocal health. Remember that your voice is an instrument and our instruments can’t be neglected! I learned all of this because of problems I had that required surgery and a speech therapist to fix which is why I know what I’m talking about now. Also my fiancé just completed her masters degree in speech therapy so I’m getting a ton of help with it at home as well.
As always information is everything and it isn’t obvious if you haven’t had any vocal issues. At some point along your path I would recommend booking a lesson or two (or however many) with a vocal coach to make absolute sure you are using proper technique that isn’t damaging your voice. I know they aren’t always cheap but a couple of sessions to make sure you’re not using bad habits is an investment i seriously recommend you consider at some point!
If you do have vocal issues:
If at some point along the way you do encounter problems with your voice then please see your doctor and let them know you rely on your voice to make a living. I was sped through the process as I was adamant on that. Listen to them and do what they tell you. You can always hire people to sing for you and split the pay with them in the short term. It’s not ideal but it’s better than sitting at home and making nothing. It will probably feel very discouraging but hang in there and you’ll make a speedy recovery in no time, much like I did.
Being a singer with vocal issues is super scary, especially if you depend on singing to pay your bills! Just know you aren’t alone. There are great musicians that can sing for you until you heal. I’m always here to chat about how the healing process went for me so don’t be shy to reach out. Feeling alone is the worse, and you aren’t alone so keep your head up and hang in there.
Vocal cords problems range from polyps to full-on nodules. By avoiding the “don’t dos”, doing warm-ups/cool-downs, and by using proper technique you will seriously reduce your risk of damaging your vocals. If you’re concerned about potential vocal issues or have been inconsistent book an appointment or head to the walk-in clinic. You may need to see and ENT (Ear nose and Throat specialist). I hope all of this information will help you make beautiful music for many years to come! Please comment down below if you know other great warmup/cool down tricks for vocalists!
Please like and share this article so we can help promote proper vocal health for all the amazing singers we know and love!
All the best! 🙂
(Here I am, back at work and loving it!)